How to Give Awesome Public Talks

a guide by an introvert


I’m by no means an expert on talks. But, as an introvert, I overcame the fear of public speaking, gave dozens of talks at tech conferences, made lots of mistakes, and listened to hundreds of other speakers over the last years.

As a result, I learned a lot about what makes a talk engaging, inspiring and enjoyable.

A good talk is a story

Human beings go to conferences to connect to other human beings. A good talk is not a report, and not an advertisement — it’s a talk.

If all you do is commenting a bunch of slides, you will loose your listeners’ attention — they’ll probably make a better use of their time by reading a website or an article on the matter instead. People want to hear your story, to feel your enthusiasm and get inspired.

So a good talk is a story. Talk to the audience as if you’re telling it to a friend. Even complex, technical topics can be approached this way. Then it will flow naturally and engage your listeners.

And if you’re telling a story, be a human! Don’t be afraid to show through your personality. Laugh, cry, make stupid jokes, throw weird gestures, make funny faces, show funny GIFs, tell about the things you love, tell people how you screwed up. Being nervous, weird, awkward or silly is perfectly fine!

Be yourself. This will give your talk humanity and warmth. People will connect to you on a personal level, and they’ll love it.

Getting comfortable on stage

Giving your first ever public talk and feeling like you’re going to pass out? That’s normal!

that historical first talk, Kyiv, 2008

Being a pretty introverted person, I gave my first talk at a crowded web development conference in 2008, talking about web accessibility. In a suit, pale like snow, with a gothic grimace on my face.

The hand holding the microphone shook intensely, with me looking as if I’m going to throw it any minute and run away. Occasionally I’d make a deep loud breath right into the mic, with the audience giving out laughs every time that happened.

Anyway, I cared about my topic, the content was useful, and people liked it.

When I’m on stage now, I often feel like I’m on a couch sitting with a bunch of friends beside a fire, even if it’s a hall with half a thousand people.

English isn’t my native language, so I often make glaring mistakes, or awkward pauses while recalling the right word. But it doesn’t bother me at all. This feeling of relaxed joy, the joy of sharing something you love with like-minded people, just comes naturally with practice.

If you’re not passionate about things you’re going to talk about, don’t bother talking at all. Otherwise, you’ll be perfectly fine! The comfort will gradually come with more talks given.

How to make great slides

The biggest problem with slides is that they have two purposes:

  • to guide and complement your talk
  • to be shared with others after the talk

These purposes are not compatible. Presenters tend to focus on making slides shareable, packing each slide with information. If you do this, it can ruin your talk:

  1. More information distracts from your message. The audience reads your slide while you talk. And we are ridiculously bad at doing multiple things at once — especially reading and listening simultaneously.
  2. Things on the slides have to be smaller (including font sizes) — many people just won’t be able to read it, as not everyone has perfect vision.
  3. You can’t convey a strong message with a noisy slide. Strong messages are simple. Just a few words or a picture hit immediately; a big paragraph, a list, a table, or anything you have to stare at for a minute to understand just can’t have the same emotional impact.
  4. When you pack your whole speech into slides, it sounds awkward — as if you simply read aloud instead of actually talking to people in front. It is a sure way to loose connection to your audience.

If you want to have a great live presentation, make the slides complementary to your talk, and not your talk complementary to the slides.

The slides will still do well when shared, even if they don’t have the full picture. People will crave for more — they’ll look up mentioned things, go through links, go to your website, follow you on Twitter, read the follow-up blog posts and wait patiently for the video of the talk. It’s fine.

Rules of thumb for slides

Make things simple. Remove clutter. That’s all you have to do to make your slides click. Specific tips:

  1. One thing per slide: a simple phrase in a huge font size, a strong image or a video.
  2. Remove anything that doesn’t serve a useful purpose: titles, frames, ornaments, logos, background patterns, distracting animations, etc.
  3. Prefer many simple slides over one complex slide.
  4. If you need several things on one slide, make them appear one by one.
  5. It’s better to talk without slides at all than comment a bunch of complex slides.
  6. Limit the variety of slide looks. In particular, limit text to a few different styles at most — e.g. a white background, a single font, with black as a primary color and one or two additional colors for emphasis.
  7. Don’t assume the projector will work perfectly and under favorable lighting conditions — make sure slides have enough contrast to be readable in any case. Also, accept as a fact that colors will probably be messed up.
  8. Don’t make the slides too flashy and intense — most of the time, the attention should be on you, not the slides.

Here’s a slide deck from one of my recent talks for an example.

Technical tips

Never rely on internet connection in presentations. I see fails because of this all the time. Even if you’re sure that it’ll work. Even if it always worked perfectly before. Even if slow connection should be enough. Try to prepare your presentations assuming you’ll be offline.

E.g. if your presentation is HTML/JS, turn off the WiFi and make sure each slide still works.

Use recorded video instead of doing live demos:

  1. Video is infinitely more reliable — no surprises. Awkward mumbling about bad WiFi — never again!
  2. Remember that people are bad at multi-tasking? You’ll have a much easier time talking strongly and connecting with your audience if you don’t stare at the screen and click something with your mouse or type on a keyboard while you talk.
  3. It’ll save you some awkward time switching between slides and the right browser tab or whatever.

Also, use recorded video instead of GIFs for product demos. The most important reason is the framerate — your listeners don’t know that it’s a GIF, so they will decide that the product is slow and janky instead.

GIFs are great because they are easily shareable. But remember that performance is a feature. Engineers put so much effort into making apps fast and smooth — don’t make the audience miss this. And don’t forget that GIFs mess up colors even further.

To record a screen video on a Mac, launch QuickTime, then click “File” — “New Screen Recording”. A moment later, you have a smooth, sharp, full-colored video for your presentation.

Final notes

I was deeply scared of public performances, but decided that in order to grow, I have to do what I fear. So I started sending out talk submissions, and it went from there. Not only is the fear gone now, — I actually enjoy talking publicly a lot.

Try it yourself — at the least, you’ll learn a very useful skill. And at the most, you’ll become a great speaker and inspire thousands of people. Even if you don’t feel like it at the moment.

If you need some inspiration, I’ll state the obvious — go to TED.com. This incredible learning resource has thousands of videos with some of the best talks ever given.

Finally, feedback is very welcome! Thanks for reading and sharing.

JSGeo 2014, Portland